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Combating, Convincing, or “Integrating”

The secular human rights movement sometimes sees conservative religious movements as an artifact of history and itself as contemporary, ahead on the “infinite road of human progress and modernity.” Some suggest that it runs the risk, echoing “culturalist” approaches purporting to establish a hierarchy between societies and philosophies, of seeing itself as superior and antagonistic to other cultures and norms. Rather than trying to enshrine the human rights project into different faiths and cultures, of trying to legitimize human rights norms within religions and not alongside or against them, human rights activists might be tempted to dismiss such faiths and cultures as obstacles to economic or human rights modernity. 

Is the “liberal” human rights movement in fact implicitly imperialistic, striving “to replace existing religious traditions with some of ‘new faith?’”39 “Secular humanists, like religious believers,” warns Professor Diane Orentlicher, “must take care lest a worshipful faith in human sanctity blind them to their own capacity for fallibility. Even a secular humanism is susceptible to harmful immoderation if unchecked by critical self scrutiny.”40

Such “arrogance,” where it exists, can reflect a desire to sidestep the complexities of some issues. The headscarf issue is in this context a “wake up call” for a human rights movement comfortably embedded, especially in continental Europe, within secularism; the different facets of the controversy test its capacity to understand complex societal processes and individual quests. A woman (re)veiling herself does not necessarily equate with submission. If based on affirmative and free choice, it can be an expression of liberation and self-assertion. Ignoring or despising traditional cultures and religious beliefs can cripple the best-intentioned attempts at promoting political reform and respect for fundamental human rights.

Similarly the human rights movement must examine why fundamentalism has been raising expectations in so many parts of the world. Political authoritarianism, economic prostration, social inequities, cultural alienation, and unresolved international conflicts all call for renewed action on civil and political as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.

[39] John Kelsay and Sumner B.Twist (Ed), Religion and Human Rights, The Project on Religion and Human Rights, 1994, New York, p.119.

[40] Diane Orentlicher, “Relativism and Religion,” in M. Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p.147.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005